September 23 – The Straight Poop

Today’s factismal: Typhoid Mary killed at least three people and made another fifty-one ill, just by cooking without washing her hands.

The woman who would come to symbolize the need for effective medical laws was born 144 years ago today. Originally known as Mary Mallon, she would eventually come to be recognized the world over as “Typhoid Mary”, the very public face of a disease that was considered one of the world’s worst scourges.

Typhoid fever is a disease caused by bacteria that live in your gut. It lasts about a month and causes inflammation of your intestines (which isn’t nearly as much fun as it sounds like) along with a high fever, a slow heartbeat and bloody nose; during the later stages, it also causes diarrhea, which leads to dehydration and is the most common cause of death. For most of the sufferers, typhoid fever is a temporary inconvenience but it can be deadly. Every year, it infects an estimated 24 million people and kills about 200,000 people. Fortunately, the introduction of chlorination to the American water supply has reduced the local infection rate to near zero.

But back in 1900, there was no water in the water supply. Not that it would have done much good, as Mary didn’t believe in washing her hands. Not after she used the restroom and not before she started cooking. (I will now pause so you can all say “Eew!”). And, to make matters worse, Mary’s body had come to an arrangement with the bacteria that caused typhoid; they wouldn’t kill her and she wouldn’t worry about them. As a result, Mary was the perfect carrier. She’d start working for a family as a cook and then leave as soon as they all started getting ill. Over a period of seven years, she worked for ten families all of which had people come down with typhoid fever. When she was finally identified as the carrier by the local doctors, she refused to be treated for typhoid or to give up cooking. As a result, she was held as a “medical prisoner” for three years until she promised to stop working as a cook.

A lurid newspaper article about Typhoid Mary

A lurid newspaper article about Typhoid Mary

Of course, her promise lasted just long enough to get her out of isolation. Once she was free,s he started cooking again and people started getting sick again. As before, every time someone became ill, she’d quit and find a new job. Her continual job changes made it more difficult for the medical establishment to find her but they finally did in 1915. This time, she was confined for life. Though she was allowed visitors, they were forbidden to touch her or to accept so much as a glass of water from her hands for fear of spreading the disease. Her intransigence did have one good side-benefit; it forced the federal and state officials to recognize the danger that a carrier could pose to unsuspecting innocents. Thanks to her unwashed spree, there are now laws on the books of every state governing when and how a person can be held to prevent the spreading of a disease.

Of course, typhoid fever isn’t the only disease that can be spread by contaminated water. If you’d like to help scientists and medical practitioners by monitoring the water quality and purity in your neighborhood, then flow over to the World Water Monitoring Challenge:

September 22 – Noah’s Archivist

Today’s factismal: If you were to trace your family history back to 1800, you’d have about 1,024 direct ancestors. And if you trace it forward to 2200, you’ll have about 1,024 direct descendents.

One of the weirder things about geneology is that we are each of us at the center of a web of relations that expands enormously behind us and in front of us. If you are married and have two kids and each of your kids has two kids and so on, five generations later you’ll have sixteen great-great-grandchildren. And if you trace your family history back that same five generations, you’ll find that you have sixteen great-great-grandparents (unless you happen to be a Hapsburg). Go another five generations and you’ll have more than a thousand ancestors or descendents. In effect, you are the center of a genealogical universe.

But, if you are like the typical person, you probably can’t name your great-great-grandparents. (And if you are like the typical new parent, you may be hard-pressed to name your two kids…) Fortunately, the US National Archives can help you with that. They have records that stretch back to before the US was founded. Those records include census data (so you know where your kinfolk lived), military records (so you know where they served), and land records (so you know if they owned the Brooklyn Bridge). Best of all, using those records is free!

Of course, if you would like to pay for using the records, there is a way to do that. But the US National Archives doesn’t want your money; they want your help as a Citizen Archivist. They have far too many records to properly analyze, tag, and classify themselves. But they’ve opened up the records so that anyone (that means you!) can help. You can look over an old letter from George Washington (your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather on your aunt’s uncle’s side) and transcribe what he wrote. Or you can sort through the papers of Abraham Lincoln (your great-great-great-really-great-uncle) and tag them for content. Or you can look over the weather logs of ships that sailed through the Arctic and Antarctic and puzzle out the changes in climate. If this sounds like your cup of tea, then send your browser to:

September 19 – Meat of the matter

Today’s factismal: Every year, fishermen catch about 20% of the scallops living off the northeast coast of North America.

In 1990, there was great concern in the fishing community: we were running out of scallops. Though this might not sound like a big deal (especially if you don’t like scallops), it was. Not only did it mean that we were facing the end of an industry that brings in $370 million each year, it also told us that we were overfishing other species as well. Soon we’d be out of fish like cod, halibut, grouper, and even tuna. But how did we know?

Scallops are eaten across the globe (Image courtesy NOAA)

Scallops are eaten across the globe
(Image courtesy NOAA)

Part of our information came from the fishermen themselves. They were pulling fewer fish every year, and the fish were smaller; that was a pretty clear indicator that there weren’t plenty of other fish in the sea. But an even larger amount of information came from citizen scientists (only back then they called them “recreational fishermen”). These folks would report to NOAA (the agency in charge of monitoring our fisheries) the size and number of fish that they caught; many of them also participated in fish tagging, so that the migration of various fish could be tracked. And, by 1996, these folks had helped NOAA amass enough data to get Congress to act; they passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act which put some legal teeth behind NOAA and let them close areas of the ocean to fishing so that the fish stocks could recover.

And boy howdy, did it work! Since 1990, the scallop population has not only recovered, it has boomed. There are now more scallops living off the coast of North America than ever before (though some species are still in danger, thanks to shark fishing). NOAA scientists estimate that there are about seven thousand million scallops now living off of the East coast, up from just seven hundred million in 1993. And every year, more than one billion of them get pulled up by specially-modified trawlers; they are then cleaned and sold to hungry scallop lovers all around the globe. Last year alone, scallops brought in nearly $450 million to fishermen.

A scallop meets a lobster (Image courtesy NOAA)

A scallop meets a lobster
(Image courtesy NOAA)

Of course, there is still the chance that we might accidentally over-fish the scallops; the only way to be sure that we don’t is to check them where they grow using autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). But an AUV can pull in more data than a team of scientists can analyze which is why they are turning to their old friends, the citizen scientists (hey! That’s you!). By identifying scallops on the tapes from AUV runs, you can help make certain that we always have plenty of scallops to eat even as you compete to “collect” the most scallops. If you’d like to take a dip into their data, then head over to Subsea Observers:

September 18 – Round And Round She Goes

Today’s factismal: We’ve been able to prove that the Earth was round for nearly 2,400 years. We’ve been able to prove that the Earth rotates for just 162 years.

One of the more frustrating things in science is having a great idea but being unable to prove it. Your idea may be simpler, easier to understand, and explain what we see better than every other theory out there, but if you can’t test it, then it just isn’t science. (Ask a physicist about string theory if you want an example of this in action.) And one of the more interesting things in science was that for nearly 300 years we knew that the Earth had to rotate but we couldn’t prove that it did so.


Proving that the Earth was round was fairly simple. In Greece, back in 350 BCE, Aristotle put together a list of ways to prove that we lived on a sphere. He pointed out that every way you traveled, things curved “down” (that’s why the last thing you see as your friend walks away on the beach is the top of his head) and the only shape that does that is a sphere. Aristotle also pointed out that the constellations move higher or lower in the sky as you move (thus setting the stage for celestial navigation) which again implies a sphere. And he pointed out that the Earth’s shadow as seen on the Moon during an eclipse is always a circle and only a sphere can do that. So we knew that the Earth was round fairly early, and could prove it. (Heck, we even knew how big it was.)


But Aristotle and his friends all placed Earth at the center of the Universe, with everything (including the Sun) revolving around it. When that happens, there’s no need for the Earth to rotate. It took Copernicus to show that the Universe would be a simpler place if the Sun stood still and all of the planets revolved around it. And, though (almost) everyone eventually agreed that was right, it meant that the Earth had to rotate – but there wasn’t any direct proof that it did so. The motion of the stars and planets could have been explained by the old Ptolemaic system; we needed to measure the Earth’s rotation. And in 1851, we got one.

A Foucault pendulum knocks over a peg, proving that the Earth rotates (My camera)

A Foucault pendulum knocks over a peg, proving that the Earth rotates
(My camera)

A physicist by the name of Leon Foucault had the bright idea of just using a pendulum. Though they had been around since time immemorial and had been understood since Galileo’s time, nobody before Foucault realized that a properly hung pendulum would stay swinging in one plane. This meant that the pendulum would keep swinging in one direction while the Earth rotated underneath it. To understand this, imagine a merry-go-round underneath a really tall swing; as the merry-go-round turns, people on it see the swing change its direction even though it is the merry-go-round that is actually turning. The same thing happens with a Foucault pendulum, and in 1851, he showed it. We had our first proof of the Earth’s rotation and the Ptolemaic system was finally and conclusively shown to be wrong.

In order for it to work well, a Foucault pendulum needs a really, really long line and a big weight (My camera)

In order for it to work well, a Foucault pendulum needs a really, really long line and a big weight
(My camera)

Today, scientists are looking for evidence to test all sorts of ideas, ranging from simple ones (like general relativity) to complicated ones (like string theory). If you’d like to help, then why not join in the Galaxy Zoo community?

September 17 – Write On!

Today’s factismal: The Egyptians forgot how to read their own writing for nearly 1400 years.

Watch any movie set in Egypt and the one thing that you are guaranteed to see is a bunch of hieroglyphs. Those strange symbols, composed of little pictures mixed with odd strokes, were some of the earliest writing and are as characteristic of Egypt as a McDonald’s is of the USA even though the Egyptians didn’t call them hieroglyphs (they called them medu-netjer {“Gods’ words”}). For more than 3,700 years, every important public act and religious ritual was written in heiroglyphs. But what is amazing is that for the next 14 centuries, nobody could read them at all!

The hieroglyphs on this stone explain the sacrifice that will take place (My camera)

The hieroglyphs on this stone explain the offering that will take place
(My camera)

Why did the Egyptians forget how to read their own language? We can thank the Romans for that. After the Romans took over Egypt in 30 BCE, they slowly substituted their writing for the Egyptians’. Because Roman letters were easier to learn and make, they soon replaced hieroglyphs for all purposes but religious ones (though the Egyptians did try to simplify their alphabet into what we call demotic and they called sesh na sha’t {“document writing”}). And when Rome converted to Christianity in 325 CE, the Romans started to suppress all pagan religions in the various provinces, including Egypt. Finally, in 391 CE, the Romans forced all non-Christian temples to close which ended the use of hieroglyphs. Within a generation, the meaning of the writings was forgotten.

The hieroglyphs on this funeral stone describe all of the goodies the deceased will enjoy in the afterlife (My camera)

The hieroglyphs on this funeral stone describe all of the goodies the deceased will enjoy in the afterlife
(My camera)

And it would have stayed forgotten if Napoleon hadn’t invaded Africa. When he attempted to take Egypt, he had his archeologists systematically loot, er, research all of the local tombs as they looked for treasure to pay for the adventure. And when they did so, they came up with one of the greatest treasures ever – the Rosetta stone. This plain black stone has a passage in Greek, demotic (a lay version of hieroglyphs), and hieroglyph. When they realized that it was the same passage, the archeologists were able to use the Greek (which they knew) to translate the hieroglyphs (which nobody knew). As a result, the meaning of the hieroglyphs was brought back after 1400 years of darkness.

The pharaohs pray (My camera)

Two of Ahkenaten’s daughters pray to Aten
(My camera)

Of course, this isn’t the only mystery in Egyptology. We have discovered thousands of fragments of papyrus, covered in Greek and other writing. But we’ll never be able to read it unless someone helps to put the pieces back together. If you’d like to give it a try, then head over to the Ancient Lives:

September 16 – Unnatural History

Today’s factismal: When ice forms on a lake, it is a mineral. When ice forms in your freezer, it isn’t a mineral; it is just ice.

Today is National Collect A Rock Day, so why are we talking about minerals? Because most (but not all) rocks are made out of minerals. And minerals are pretty cool. The first thing that you need to know about minerals is that the stuff in your vitamins aren’t minerals (so much for truth in labeling). That’s because, in order to be a mineral, something has to have a definite chemical composition (e.g., NaCl for halite), defined physical characteristics (e.g., has a density of 3.52 g/cc for diamond), and must be naturally-occurring (i.e., created by Mama Nature). Because the “minerals” in your vitamins lack at least two of those characteristics, they aren’t real minerals even if they are chemically identical to the ones in nature. The same thing is true of ice; only the stuff that forms outside is naturally-occurring and so it is the only ice that is a mineral.

Rhodochrosite is a mineral that was discovered by citizen scientists (My camera)

Rhodochrosite is a mineral that was discovered by citizen scientists
(My camera)

Strangely enough, that last requirement doesn’t hold for rocks; you can have man-made rocks, just as you can have natural ones. Thus, concrete (which isn’t found in nature) is just as much a rock as asphalt (which forms near oil seeps). And, whether we’re talking about rocks or minerals, it turns out that citizen scientists have done an amazing amount of work. Most new minerals are actually discovered by citizen scientists, as are many new types of rock. Cool beans, huh?

Opal isn't a mineral because it doesn't have a regular structure (My camera)

Opal isn’t a mineral because it doesn’t have a regular structure (but it is pretty)
(My camera)

And the contributions of citizen scientists to the study of geology doesn’t stop there. For example, the folks at Geo-Wiki are using citizen scientists to help measure the amount and type of land cover. If you’d like to give them a hand, then hike over to:

September 15 – How Clever!

Today’s factismal: The word engineer comes from the Latin word ingenium which means “cleverness”.

If you want to start an argument at a science conference, as the folks there who the first scientist was. They’ll argue all day and night, complete with glossy photos covered with circles and arrows and with references on the back of each one, trying to decide if Pythagoras was a scientist or just a guy with a bean fetish. But if you ask a group of engineers who the first engineer was, you won’t get an argument. That’s because nobody knows; ever since there have been people, there have been engineers that built things to make the people more comfortable.

The outside of the coliseum at Pompeii (My camera)

The outside of the coliseum at Pompeii; a deceptively simple feat of engineering
(My camera)

The inside of the coliseum at Rome; witht eh wooden seats gone, you can see the involved engineering (My camera)

The inside of the coliseum at Rome; with the wooden seats gone, you can see the involved engineering
(My camera)

Engineers built the hanging gardens of Babylon. Engineers built the pyramids of Egypt. And engineers built the marvel that was Rome, from her majestic aqueducts to her ubiquitous roads to her incredible coliseums. And, in return for all that the engineers gave Rome, the Romans gave engineers a name: ingenium or “clever folks”. And those clever folks have kept giving us marvel after marvel.

Even when the engineering doesn't quite work, it is still miraculous (My camera)

Even when the engineering doesn’t quite work, it is still miraculous
(My camera)

Today is International Engineer Day. So be sure to look at the freeway you drive on or the house you live in or the plane flying overhead and give thanks that those clever folks are still at it. Of course, if you’d like to help create the next generation of clever folks, then there’s a citizen science program for that: Free Geek. These engineers are determined to help make certain that every aspiring engineer has the tools that she or he needs by refurbishing used computer equipment and donating it to low-income families. They started in Portland, Oregon, but have since spread to several other states. To donate or take part, head over to: